How to Take a Vote OnlineIn today’s world, there’s one main reason for using online voting: convenience. (Who wouldn’t want to vote from their living room instead of traipsing across town or across the country?) Plus, online voting increases the likelihood of member participation in a vote, and it may remove some of the stress that often comes with taking a consequential vote in a large group.

I know you’re thinking, let’s do this already. But before you press ahead, let’s talk a little about parliamentary procedure and legality.

Step 1: Figure out what laws apply.

Identify the state laws that govern your organization’s meetings. Chat with your legal counsel or check your articles of incorporation to determine your group’s legal status and which state’s laws apply. Then search in that state’s laws for statutes applicable to your kind of group.

Step 2: Find out what the law says about taking actions outside of a meeting.

This is the basic idea of online voting—you’re not doing it in a meeting. So look in the “Meetings” section of the state statutes (there might be a subsection titled, “Action without a Meeting”). Plan B is to check the “Voting” section, which may describe how to take a vote without a meeting, implying that doing so is fine.  Here’s a few other tips:

  • Make sure you’re referencing the statutory sections that apply to membership meetings, not board of directors’ meetings—two different things.
  • If there’s silence on the issue, the law may be implying “no online voting.” But check to see if the law lets you include language in your bylaws or adopt other rules that would allow you to use online voting anyway.
  • If the law allows action outside of a meeting only if everyone votes, you basically can’t vote online since getting every last member to vote is pretty much impossible.
  • Mail balloting is not the same as online voting.

Step 3: Check your bylaws.

If Robert’s Rules is your parliamentary authority, then you need bylaws that authorize voting outside of a meeting. Parliamentary procedure likes people to be physically present for discussion and a vote, so if you want to let absent people vote, you have to say so explicitly in your bylaws.

Step 4: Make a plan!

If online voting is an option, make sure you’ve got all the details well-timed and organized before you jump in. Find a credible vendor who can ensure confidentiality and controlled access to voting programs. There’s nothing worse than generating negativity about a new idea because it’s poorly executed. (If you need to, be willing to just wait till next year. Seriously.)

4 Things Most People Get Wrong about AbstentionsRaise your hand if you’ve ever heard or said these words:

  • “All those in favor, say ‘aye.’”
  • “All those opposed, say ‘no.’”
  • “Any abstentions?”

And just keep your hand up there if that last question makes you think, “What in the world is an abstention? And why in the world is the chair asking for them?” Let me try to explain.

First, in parliamentary procedure land, an “abstention” is simply a voter’s decision not to vote. It’s when a motion comes up for a vote, and (1) you don’t want anyone to know what you think about that issue, (2) you disagree with the guy next to you but don’t want him to know, (3) you aren’t sure what you think, (4) you lost track of business a while back and don’t know what the vote is about, or (5) you totally miss that a vote is happening because you’re thinking about golf. So you just don’t vote.

Now hopefully at this point you’re asking, “If an abstention is a decision not to vote, why ask the people who aren’t voting to announce that fact to everyone?” Good question. Asking vote-abstainers to identify themselves is just one of several points of confusion people have about how abstentions work.

1. Always Ask for Abstentions

No. As I’ve talked about before, per Robert’s Rules, abstentions should not be called for, counted, or recorded. Why? Because no member can be required to vote, so when you ask people to tell whether they voted, you’re asking them to make a record of their decision to not go on record.

2. Never Ask for Abstentions

No. Point one aside, there are two circumstances when you should ask people who are abstaining to identify themselves. (1) You’re part of a public body (elected/appointed officials) and have a responsibility to make a record of your participation on votes for the benefit of constituents. Or (2), you’re counting the vote, and those voting are fewer than the number required for a quorum. You wouldn’t want members to question whether a quorum was present for that vote, and so recording the number of abstentions clarifies that you had a quorum. Totally fair.

3. Abstentions Should Be Counted as Votes “Cast”

Wrong. The issue here is whether to count abstentions as votes cast when you’re trying to determine whether you have a majority. In other words, if you’re on a board of 12, all of whom are present, and 10 people vote and two abstain, do you need six yes votes to win or seven? You need six according to the default definition of majority, which is “those present and voting.” So yet another reason not to ask for abstentions. They generally have no effect on the vote anyway. But once in a while they do. See my next point.

4. Abstentions Never Affect the Vote Result

Wrong again. Abstentions affect the vote result if your governing documents define majority differently – as the number of individuals present or the number of total members. Under either of these definitions, using the example above, you would need seven votes to win. In this case, even though an abstention is still not counted as a vote cast, it effectively acts as a “no” vote because the basis for a majority is a fixed number.

All those who now know a little more about abstentions, say “aye.”

Taking a vote seems easy enough. Just use the magic words, “All those in favor” . . . right? Technically, yes, but there’s more to it than that. And I know you don’t want to mess up an important vote with an avoidable mistake. Here are four errors I encounter frequently in vote-taking contexts. You’re going to have problems if you . . .

4 Ways to Screw Up a Vote1. Show Favoritism

If you’re really committed to playing fair as you lead, then learn the subtle ways that a presiding officer can communicate impartiality – a quality that should be top of mind for anyone leading a meeting. One easy tip is to use the same language when asking each “side” for their vote.

So, say this: “All those in favor, say ‘aye.’ All those opposed, say, ‘no.’”

And definitely avoid this other, all-too-common fallback: “All those in favor, say ‘aye.’ Anyone opposed?” The difference is small, I realize, but the tone and connotation of the words “anyone opposed” might make all the difference for someone that is reluctant to cast a negative vote, especially in a small group.

Another way to communicate equal treatment of all views, especially in a large group, is to make sure every person and/or delegation – yes, even that annoying individual or faction – has the information and material (think: ballots or key pads) needed to cast a vote. Silencing the minority to railroad a vote through is never advantageous long-term. You’re better off taking time to ensure the process is fair.

2. Ask for Abstentions

On this point, I’ll make it simple for you: Just don’t ask. Robert’s Rules says that abstentions should not be called for, counted, or recorded. And there’s a solid rationale here: No member can be forced to vote, so when you ask people to tell you that they didn’t vote – well, you’re basically asking them to go on record as not going on record.

There are a few exceptions here – like, if you’re part of a public body (elected or appointed officials), or if you’re concerned that someone might question whether a quorum was present based on the vote count recorded in the minutes. But the general rule applies in most situations: No need to ask for abstentions.

3. Keep the Precise Topic of the Vote a Mystery

Spoiler Alert: After the first five – okay, maybe ten – minutes of a meeting, most people aren’t paying attention. This means that by the time you start taking a vote, you need to make the topic of the vote really clear since many tuned out long ago.

There’s a simple way to avoid mystery and make the vote clear: Always repeat the motion in full right before the vote.

Here’s an example: “The motion on the floor is that we purchase a new computer and printer for the treasurer. All those in favor, say ‘aye.’ All those opposed, say, ‘no.’”

I know this seems like a small point, but taking time to make sure everyone is on the same page is always worth it.

4. Say the Words, “Same Sign” or “Nay”

It’s the parliamentarians’ favorite LOL moment. (Some of us do have a sense of humor!) Whenever we hear someone take a voice vote and use the words, “same sign,” we laugh inside about the illogic of this.

Think about it for a minute. Saying, “All those in favor say, ‘aye.’  All those opposed, ‘same sign,’” does not make sense because you’re asking the individuals voting no to say “yes” in order to communicate their opposition. Confusing and not cool. Best practice – be precise.

And finally, call me pretentious, but horses say, “nay.” People say, “no.” So when you’re taking a vote, for the love of humanity (not animals this time), just ask them to say, “no.”

A Quick Guide to Voting Terms (Plus PDF Download)Attend a meeting or read an organization’s rules, and you’re likely to encounter a variety of voting terms. Parliamentary procedure (e.g., the rules of Robert’s Rules and other parliamentary procedure guidebooks) helps us out with the voting process.

Though some concepts may seem familiar, even well-known terms like “majority” have nuanced meaning. Here’s a quick guide (and some bonus tips) to common voting terms whose definitions and usage may not always be readily apparent:

abstention

to not vote at all

Bonus Tip: Except in public bodies, a presiding officer should not ask members to identify whether they are abstaining from a vote.

ballot vote a written, secret vote on a slip of paper; allowed only when required by the bylaws or ordered by a majority vote
counted vote a method of vote verification whereby each vote is individually tallied; occurs on the chair’s initiative alone or via passage of a motion by majority vote; one member cannot demand it
division of assembly a method of vote verification demanded by one member, whereby an inconclusive voice vote or show of hands vote is retaken as a rising vote; the demand is made by calling out, “Division!”; not a method by which one member can demand a counted vote
general/unanimous consent

a vote taken informally on noncontroversial matters

Bonus Tip: To take a vote using this method, say, “If there is no objection, we will . . . .” If any member objects, simply put the motion to a more formal vote by saying, “All those in favor of . . . say, ‘aye.’ All those opposed, say, ‘no.’”

majority

more than half of the members in good standing that are both present and voting

Bonus Tip: This is the default definition of “majority” if used without qualification in an organization’s governing documents.

majority of a quorum more than half of the number of members needed for a quorum
majority of the entire membership more than half of all the members in good standing, regardless of whether they are present
majority of the members present more than half of the members in good standing that are present at a meeting
plurality the largest number of votes among three or more candidates or proposals; not necessarily a majority
proxy a “power of attorney” given by one member to another member to vote in his place
unanimous

every member present casts the same vote on a motion

Bonus Tip: This is the weakest type of vote because it allows one disagreeable member to control the entire group. Use judiciously.

vote by acclamation

a declaration by the chair that a member nominated for an office is elected; no vote is taken

Bonus Tip: Used only when only one person is nominated for an office and the bylaws do not require a ballot vote.